Francis Spufford: ‘I’ve always loved novels best as a reader, but for a long time I was too timid to take the plunge’

Author and judge of young writer of the year award shares his literary insights

You are on the judging panel for the Sunday Times Young Writer Award. What made the four writers on this year’s shortlist stand out?

Excellence – four different kinds. Very different, from a brilliant explanation of the greatness of a Renaissance poet, to the world’s most playful novel about dying of cancer, to a memoir of abortion that finds a form for every nuance of mixed feelings, to a darkly tender exploration of the home-life of a Manchester crime family. Don’t ask me what the future of literature holds, because on the evidence of these books, it isn’t going to any one place. It’s got lots of futures. But good ones.

You won the prize for I May Be Some Time: Ice and the English Imagination (1995), about the age of polar exploration. What attracted you to the subject?

My puzzlement, back when I was a student in the 1980s, that a sensible, enlightened, modern person like me could be moved by hoary old imperial nonsense like the story of Captain Scott’s death in the Antarctic. What was going on there? The answer turned out to involve digging through some cultural history that hadn’t been bothered with much, back then, though it’s got much more visible since.


Your nonfiction contained novelistic passages before you made the leap to fiction with Golden Hill, which won a host of big prizes, then Light Perpetual and Cahokia Jazz. Would you talk me through your narrative arc as an author?

Basically, I’ve always loved novels best as a reader, but for a long time I was too timid to take the plunge. (And nothing shows off what you understand about your fellow human beings as mercilessly as writing fiction.) So I wrote ever more novel-like non-fiction, sneaking in the techniques of the novelist on the quiet, until I reached my tipping point with a book called Red Plenty, which was explicitly a halfway house between true and made-up. Dialogue, tick; completely imaginary characters, tick; and then I was off.

You are married to an Anglican priest and wrote a book: Unapologetic: Why, Despite Everything, Christianity Can Still Make Surprising Emotional Sense. Does your faith influence you as a writer?

Absolutely it does. You dip your pen in the ink of yourself when you write, inevitably, and faith gives me one of the fundamental ways in which I grasp the world. To me, Christianity is an anti-perfectionist creed, a source for sympathetic curiosity about all the incredible range of human behaviour and human character: the mixed splendour and sh**e of our nature. I don’t write propaganda, though. It’s a point of artistic honour that everything I write has to work for people who don’t share any of my convictions.

CS Lewis was another devout Christian. You’ve written a novel, The Stone Table, set in the Narnia universe he created. Is there any hope it will be published before his estate’s copyright lapses in 2034?

For legal reasons, all I can say is: watch this space. Possibly for the next 11 years.

What projects are you working on?

I’ve just started a fantasy novel set in the London Blitz. This requires me to find out about wartime share-dealing regulations, very early television and 17th-century magic. You should imagine me rubbing my hands gleefully at this point. Pleasure in research, as weird and heterogenous as possible, is part of being a non-fiction writer that I’ve kept.

Have you ever made a literary pilgrimage?

Well, I’ve been to the Martello tower in Sandycove to see where Buck Mulligan emerged, carrying his bowl of lather. I think that counts. Oh, and to a restaurant in Glasgow called The Ubiquitous Chip, to look at the murals painted by the late great Alasdair Gray.

What is the best writing advice you have heard?

“Write what you don’t know; use what you do know to make it plausible.”

Who do you admire the most?

My wife. She is wise.

You are supreme ruler for a day. Which law do you pass or abolish?

I’d have Patriarch Kirill of the Russian Orthodox Church relocated by decree to a small shack on the front lines in Donbas. Alternatively, I’d like him to be visited by night by a fiery angel – but that’s not in my power to arrange, however grand you make me.

What current book would you recommend?

Apart from the shortlist for the Sunday Times Young Writer Award? Sheila Armstrong’s shimmeringly strange 2022 short story collection, How to Gut a Fish. My order is in for her first novel Falling Animals, due in May 2023. I also (cough) have a new novel out in October.

Which public event affected you most?

The election of Margaret Thatcher in 1979. I was 15, and I’m still not over it. And neither is the somewhat deranged country next door to you.

Which writers, living or dead, would you invite to your dream dinner party?

Penelope Fitzgerald. Michael Chabon. George Eliot. Zadie Smith.

What is the most beautiful book that you own?

Almost all the books I own are frayed from use, dog-eared from having their page corners turned down, spattered with coffee, or crinkled from being dropped in the bath. However, I can report that the prose inside is still as beautiful as ever.

Francis Spufford is a judge for the 2022 Sunday Times Charlotte Aitken Young Writer of the Year Award. The winner will be announced in a live ceremony on Tuesday, March 14th.